Dale (my racing sponsor) and I weren’t doing much club racing in 1978, opting to concentrate on the Superbike racing. There was one club race in 1978 that we attended — the was AFM’s annual 6-hour endurance race at Ontario Motor Speedway in April. The popularity of endurance racing was growing – in 1977 there were 87 entries in the five classes while in 1978 there were 101 entries and 95 starting teams. The event always drew some top-flight talent. In 1977, for example, the 9 riders who comprised the top four finishing teams included no fewer than 5 AMA Superbike race winners.
In 1978 the top two teams, based on Saturday’s practice times, were Reg Pridmore, Keith Code and Pierre DesRoches on a Vetter Fairing-sponsored Kawasaki KZ1000; and the Yoshimura entered Suzuki GS1000 piloted by Wes Cooley, Ron Pierce and Gary Fisher. There were a number of liter bike teams fighting over the third seed position, including Chuck and Larry Parme (Z1), Whitney Blakeslee and Pat Beacom (KZ1000), Mike Velacso and David Langford (GS1000), Hurley Wilvert and Dennis David (Z1), Willi Scheffer and Jeff Peck (GS1000), and John Ulrich and Ken Gill (950cc GS750). The winning team from 1977, Dave Emde and Harry Klinzmann, were running a BMW R90/S-based machine and were dark horses in 1978.
Dale Newton had entered a bike that myself, Vance Breese and Jody Nicholas would ride. Vance and I had ridden my Ducati 750 Sport to 4th overall and 1st 750cc Class bike in 1977. Dale invited Jody, a former Suzuki factory racer, as a third rider on the team.
Dale had hoped to prepare a Ducati 900SS for us to race but the motor wasn’t ready in time. In place of the 900SS engine Dale pulled the motor out of the 750SS that we had used in 1977 to win the AFM 750 Production class and dropped it into the Superbike-spec chassis.
The 6-hour was always a two-day event with practice for the 6-hour bikes and sprint races for the other classes on Saturday, then a short morning practice and the 6-hour race on Sunday. Saturday went as usual for Southern California, and it was warm and dry. Our practice went well, although it was clear that our smaller twin couldn’t keep up with the top open class bikes. We were one of the faster 750cc bikes, though.
During Sunday morning warm-up we practiced rider swap/fuel stops. It was pretty hectic. The rider pulled in, killed the ignition and popped open the gas cap, the next rider stepped up to the left side of the bike while the third (off-shift) rider stood ready on the right side. (He’s there to help insure that the bike doesn’t fall over – teams have dropped their cycle during all the fuss.) A crew member at the right front handled the quick-fill fuel can. Still steadying the bike the off-shift rider stepped to the rear, the end-of-shift rider rolled off to the right and collapsed and the next rider hopped on. When the fill can was empty the crew member pulled it out, the new rider snapped the gas cap shut, pulled in the clutch and turned the ignition back on. The off-shift rider and another crew member pushed the bike, then the new rider lifted up then brought his weight down on the seat while popping the clutch. If all went well the bike fired and he was off to the races.
Sunday was supposed to be dry as well but the morning practice was unusually cloudy. Forecasters had predicted clearing skies, but it started drizzling right after the riders meeting, only 30 minutes or so before the scheduled start. Dale called the local Airport Weather Guy to get an up-to-the-minute forecast. He told me the conversation went something like this:
Dale: What’s the prediction for rain today?
AWG: It’s not going to rain.
Dale: It’s raining NOW.
AWG: Oh. It must be a local disturbance; it will clear out.
Dale: So you think it will be dry today?
AWG: For sure.
Based on this forecast most big bike teams, and all of the major players, started with racing slick tires, a rather hard compound that was expected to go the full distance. In spite of the favorable forecast it proceeded to rain on and off for more than five of the six hours that day. The track surface varied from damp to running wet. A dry line of sorts developed sometime after the 5-hour mark.
We had registered as a Open class bike but updated it as a 750cc entry. The club consequently moved us from the front row to the 3rd row, but still in the first wave. We had slick tires like most of the big bikes, and I was up first for our team, a run of 1.5 hours (or until the tank went on the reserve) before stopping to refuel and switch riders. Our team plan was for each rider to ride one 1.5 hour turn, leaving 1.5 hours remaining. What we would do at that point depended on where we stood in the class. If we were well in front each rider would get another 1/2 hour session.
The only change I made for the rain was to tape a small piece of cotton cloth to my left forearm so I could wipe off my face shield if it got hard to see. We all expected the drizzle to burn off, but as the race began the slight drizzle turned into a steady light rain. I remember thinking, as I slowed for the first turn after the dash down the straight, this is going to be interesting. The track went from damp to wet in about five minutes – about the time it took to finish two laps.
Billy Addington (team mate Syd DeSoto) won the dash to turn one on a turbo-charged Suzuki GS1000 but as soon as they hit the turns Reg Pridmore then Chuck Parme went past. Parme then passed Pridmore to take the lead.
It was slippery; lots of riders had a hard time with the rain. People were going slower than usual but still bikes were sliding off the track left and right. Since the get-offs were slow, usually the rider could pick up the bike and re-join the race. Some team members were parking perfectly good bikes rather than trying to race. One rider was quoted as saying “I couldn’t deal with it. I told my partner to find another rider.” The big in-line fours usually had a kick of acceleration when they got their revs up, and the kick usually spun their rear tire and sent it sliding sideways. Here’s a quote from an article John Ulrich wrote at the time. “The slightest hint of throttle threatened to send open-class motorcycles full-lock sideways — a situation many riders found themselves in during the long, wet race.”
But not our Ducati. We had the nearly perfect bike for the conditions. It had a more gentle power delivery than the big fours, partly because it was a twin and partly because it was 750cc. It didn’t produce a burst of power anywhere; it just kept gaining speed at a predictable, steady rate. As long as I rode very, very smoothly the bike tracked well even with the slick tires on the wet track. I began moving up from my 3rd row start, picking off riders one-by-one until taking the lead on lap five. I remember passing Reg Pridmore on the Vetter KZ1000. As we rounded one of Ontario’s flat left-hand sweepers his rear wheel spun and took a big step sideways. Reggie saved it but it caused him to drift wide and I was able to duck inside and go past. At the end of the 5th lap the running order was myself, Parme, Pridmore, Whitney Blakeslee, Mike Velasco, Dennis Smith (with Bill Henry, 944cc GS750 Suzuki), Willi Scheffer, Gary Fisher, Bill Addington, John Ulrich and Harry Klinzmann.
This is kinda fun! I remember thinking. Here’s another quote from John’s article: “The fact that his bike wore slicks front and rear didn’t bother Ritter, but Pridmore later said of his slick-equipped bike, ‘It was like riding on snot out there’.” The race report that appeared in Cycle Magazine said I was running 3-4 seconds per lap faster than the other teams.
Some of the faster 410 class bikes, who had treaded tires, began creeping into the top ten, darting past the bigger bikes in the infield. At the end of the tenth lap the order was myself, Pridmore, Blakeslee, Parme, Gil Martin (KZ650 with Roger Hagie), Velasco, Wilvert (one of the few 1000cc bikes that started with treaded tires), Addington, Alan Gingerelli (partnering with Dick Fuller, Yamaha RD350), Fisher, Ulrich and Klinzmann.
After that things got pretty jumbled. Mechanical failures and/or crashes mixed things up pretty well. Gary Fisher had pitted the Yoshimura bike for fuel at lap 25 but with him running no better than 9th or 10th the team elected to take 10 minutes to change wheels to put on treaded tires.
During that first 1.5.hour session I was passed by only one other rider, Ron Pierce on the Yoshimura Suzuki. I tried to keep up with him but couldn’t. I learned later that they had pitted and changed to wheels with treaded tires and they were 4 or 5 laps down, although they were going well now.
The water had to go somewhere, of course. Rain that fell on the infield part of the track drained into the trackside sandy soil. The main straight was slightly banked so the water that fell there ran down to the inside of the oval, and then flowed in the opposite direction of the bikes. This flow was crossing the track near turn 20, just before entering the main straight. The track was wet everywhere, but there was actual flowing water at that point. My bike would aquaplane when I forded the stream so I needed to be very careful to be straight up and down and off throttle when I crossed the creek.
Somewhere near the one hour mark, just after I had crossed the stream and started accelerating up the front straight, the engine stumbled, breaking up before getting to full revs. I up-shifted before the normal shift point and the motor cleared up. I thought I was running out of gas so I switched to reserve as I went down the straight.
I pitted at the next opportunity, and said I needed gas. Dale checked the tank and found plenty of gas left. I got back on the track as quickly as possible, no longer worried about fuel but wondering what was going on with the motor. I had lost the lead during this stop but stayed on the same lap and quickly reclaimed it, leading across the line at lap 30.
During the last few laps of my rotation every time I slowed for turn 19 and splashed across the creek the bike would start missing when it got to about 6,500 RPM. I just short-shifted and kept going and as I gained speed on the straight the engine cleared up and ran fine up to 8,500 RPM for the rest of the lap, only to repeat the behavior the next time through the creek.
At the ninety minute mark I came in for the rider swap and fuel. Vance was up next and I told him about the engine missing and to up-shift early when it started. Jody and Dale started pushing to bump start the bike, and pushed and pushed. The engine wouldn’t fire! They pushed the bike back to our pit area and Dale grabbed the hose from the compressed air tank and started spraying air under the tank where the coils and other electrics were housed. This time this engine caught and Vance motored down the pit lane and onto the track. We all breathed a big sigh of relief. Apparently as long as the bike was going fast the wind kept the water out of the electrics. When the bike slowed for the tight turn 19 and splashed through the stream, water got into the works causing the behavior I was getting. As speed increased down the straight the wind blew the water out and the bike started running correctly again. Our pit area was close to turn 20 so when I pitted I didn’t get going fast enough to clear the water out. In fact pitting let the water penetrate even further.
Our relief didn’t last long. Vance came right back in and got off the bike, talked to Dale for a minute then came over to Jody and me. He explained that one cylinder was cutting in and out, switching the bike between being a light and fast 750cc twin to a heavy and slow 375cc single at random times. When this happened, of course, the bike would get a sudden increase or decrease in power. If it happened in a turn it would spin the rear wheel and get the bike sideways. It was too dangerous to ride under those conditions and at the 1:40 mark we retired. Shucks. Vance and Jody didn’t even get their turns in the saddle.
During any endurance race there is an ebb and flow on the track as teams pit for fuel, have mechanical problems or crashes, but normally you can expect the faster teams to hang near the front. The rain mixed things up even more than usual, giving some of the smaller bikes the opportunity to run at the sharp end.
Dick Fuller got the Fuller/Alan Gingerelli RD350 up into third, then crashed and spent 10 minutes in the pits fixing the damage. Pat Beacom took the Blakeskee/Beacom KZ1000 into third then he crashed, needing 6 minutes, about 2 laps worth of time, for damage control. The Vetter team kept their bike in the top five throughout but as long as the track was wet they couldn’t use the bike’s power to advance to the front.
The Yoshimura bike was slowly picking up the laps it lost when they swapped the wheels. At lap 70, near the 3-hour half way point the bike was up to 4th overall, and would rise as high as 2nd place before the cam chain adjuster broke. This would be the end of the line for most teams but the Yoshimura crew uncovered the spare engine and installed it! It took a long time and the team finished well down, but they were running at the end.
The Kawasaki KZ650 of Roger Hagie and Gil Martin held the overall lead for a while, and the RD350 Yamahas of Fuller/Gingerelli and Thad Wolfe/Dain Gingerelli got deep into the top ten.
After some 5 hours of on-and-off rain the skies cleared and the racing became more as expected, with the bigger, more powerful bikes beginning to dominate. The teams of Roger Hagie/Gil Martin (KZ650) and Hurley Wilvert/Dennis David were dicing for the lead when a dry line developed and the Vetter team started tearing big chunks out of their lead. Pridmore finally took the lead with about 15 minutes to go in the race.
That wasn’t the end of the drama, though. The Vetter Kawasaki went on reserve sooner than expected and Reg figured it would not make the last five laps on that amount. He pitted for a splash of fuel, but the gas cap broke during the refueling! It was quickly duct-taped back on and Reg came out of the pits in third place, 37 seconds down on the leading Wilvert/David bike. But with the dry line on the track Reggie put his head down and turned the team’s fastest laps of the race, catching the other Kawasakis on the last lap to claim the win by 8 seconds. Eight seconds. After 6 hours of racing. Sheesh.
It was a very different Ontario 6-hour than people expected. The rain started out being to our advantage but in the end was our downfall. The lack of traction was a horsepower equalizer as the more powerful bikes would spin up the rear tire with ease. When traction is poor it isn’t power alone that matters. You have to be really smoooooooooth. Any sudden action can, and likely will, upset things. You can’t pitch the bike into a turn; you have to ease it in. You can’t whack the throttle open; you have to gradually roll it open. You can’t have a sudden burst of power or torque; the bike needs a really flat torque curve and a smoothly climbing horsepower curve.
It’s no accident that the only World Superbike race the tiny Bimota company ever won (so far) was a wet race. Today the top sports bikes are fuel injected and have multiple fuel mappings including a rain setting that provides exactly the correct power characteristics needed for slippery surfaces. In 1978 that special rain mapping was in the pilot’s right wrist.
1978 Ontario Six-Hour Results, Top Twelve
Pos. – Laps Completed – Team – Bike
1. 136 Reg Pridmore/Keith Code/Pierre DesRoches Kawasaki KZ1000
2. 136 Hurley Wilvert/Dennis David Kawasaki Z-1
3. 136 Roger Hagie/Gil Martin Kawasaki KZ650
4. 133 Mike Valseco/David Langford Suzuki GS1000
5. 133 Whitney Blakeslee/Pat Beacom Kawasaki KZ1000
6. 132 Dain Gingerelli/Thad Wolfe Yamaha RD350
7. 132 Alan Gingerelli/Dick Fuller Yamaha RD350
8. 132 Chuck & Larry Parme Kawasaki Z-1
9. 131 Harry Klinzmann/Dave Emde BMW R90S
10. 130 Mike Raney/Bruce Chin Yamaha RD400
11. 130 Art Freidman/Jeff Karr/James Parker Suzuki GS550
12. 129 Gordon Seim/Jeff Little Can-Am 250
The winner of the dry 1977 6-hour completed 153 laps.
The Gingerelli brothers Alan and Dain teamed up to win the 410cc class in 1977. This year they split up, each getting a new partner, and still dominated the class, finishing first and second, each team with 132 laps,
The winner of the 250cc class, Gordon Seim and Jeff Little, finished an astonishing 12th overall with 129 laps. The second place 250cc bike was in 33rd place with 120 laps completed.
The Yoshimura team of Wes Cooley, Ron Pierce and Gary Fisher finished in 46th position overall with 111 laps completed, after replacing a broken engine.
Second place in the 750cc Class was a female team, Wendy Epstein and Jill Keenan. They finished 20th overall with 127 laps.
1978 Ontario 6-hour Results by Class, Top Three
1. R. Pridmore/K. Code/P. DesRoches Kawasaki KZ1000
2. Hurely Wilvert/Dennis David Kawasaki Z-1
3. Mike Velasco/David Langford Suzuki GS1000
1. Roger Hagie/Gil Martin Kawasaki KZ650
2. Wendy Epstein/Jill Keenan Kawasaki KZ650
3. Kenny Farmer/Terry Newby Suzuki GS750
1. Art Friedman/Jeff Karr/James Parker Suzuki GS550
2. John Buddenbaum/Gary Broeder Yamaha 500
3. Harold & Dale Parks/Phil Headley Yamaha 500
1. Dain Gingerelli/Thad Wolf Yamaha RD350
2. Alan Gingerelli/Dick Fuller Yamaha RD350
3. Mike Raney/Bruce Chinn Yamaha RD400
1. Gordon Seim/Jeff Little Can-Am 250
2. John Welch/Dennis Rogers Yamaha RD250
3. Earl Smith/Leroy Gerke Can-Am 250